Addis Ababa (Alshahid) — Secessionist rebels in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region said they had captured the Hilala gas field, where Malaysian oil giant Petronas has exploration rights, but the government denied the claim Sunday.
The rebels also reiterated that foreign oil companies must keep out of the oil- and gas-rich Ogaden belt, which neighbours lawless Somalia.
“Special forces of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) yesterday liberated and are now in control of the Hilala field in eastern Ogaden,” the group said in a statement issued late Saturday.
“Troops of the regime abandoned the field after being surrounded by our forces and determining their chances for survival were slim,” it said.
The Ethiopian government granted Malaysia’s Petronas exploration rights for the region’s Hilala and Calub gas fields development in 2007.
The ONLF said foreign companies must stay away from Ogaden.
A British oil worker was killed there in April in an attack blamed on bandits. He was working for IMC Geophysics International Ltd, subcontracted to Petronas.
“Oil companies seeking to invest in Ogaden at this time are engaged in gross corporate irresponsibility at the very least and most likely complicit in war crimes,” it said.
Authorities in Addis Ababa swiftly denied the gas field had been captured.
“There wasn’t a single bullet fired in the locality,” government spokesman Bereket Simon told AFP Sunday.
“The message was meant to boost the morale of the defeated group, which is now incapable of carrying out attacks,” he said.
The ONLF, formed in 1984, is fighting for independence for ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden whom they say have been marginalised by the government in Addis Ababa.
Their claim to have taken the field came two weeks after they announced their forces had captured an army garrison town and killed 94 government soldiers in a surprise raid.
Addis Ababa also refuted that claim, saying the ONLF had lost 59 fighters in the battle with 32 either wounded or captured by police and local militias.
The Ethiopian government says the rebel outfit is on its last legs and dismisses its claims of success as propaganda.
The government launched a crackdown on the rebels in 2008 after they attacked a Chinese oil venture the previous year, killing 77 people.
The ONLF denies that its fighting capacity has been slashed since then, and said it November it had launched a broad offensive and recaptured seven towns from government forces — a claim also rejected by authorities.
Ogaden is believed to be lying on large quantities of gas, but further exploration is needed to verify the exact amount and develop the fields.